Heraclitus of old looked on a river and saw in it a metaphor of the world: all is flux, you can’t step into the same river twice. If all is flux, where is permanence? Socrates, philosopher of hope, found it by believing in a world of meaning. That which is invisible is permanent. It is the invisible seen in the visible, in the world of flux that gives us the sense to seek for that greater realm. There is a desire, and Socrates followed the desire in the right direction. We must escape the illusion that the world of the senses is real, and turn toward that which is real which shines through it in the meaning.

With this in mind, walk on the grass and ask yourself what somebody who believed Socrates was right would do, walking on the grass. He would wonder what the grass means. Poets would do that, and there is a poet-philosopher: Plato. Philosophy sought the answer to less trivial questions, but it did so by beginning in the wonder of wondering what the appearances of the world mean, and then examining what the invisible realities of meaning were. What is justice, what is love, what is education, what, after all, is man?

The platonic archetype of man is winged, and philosophy was a way of recovering wings. On wings of thought one can ascend to that luminous, geometric realm and behold the reasons behind all the phenomena of the senses in their true being: beautiful, perfect, immutable, incorruptibly dematerialized.

Origen of Alexandria was a Platonist, if to be a Platonist is to believe that reality exists in that immaterial realm, and that below it are symbols and types, objects of opinion and perception, but not objects of true knowledge. He believed that when the writer of Hebrews said the tabernacle was a shadow of a heavenly type, that the writer of Hebrews was using a Platonic epistemology: to know the tabernacle was to search for its meaning, to rise up to heaven and gaze with the mind’s eye on what was real.

For Origen, that was a key to Scripture. When we read Scripture we should realize that the literal indicates a reality beyond itself, a spiritual reality, the true nourishment. And it should weigh in our consideration that his works nourish us. Think about it, even if you don’t read Origen you have been nourished by Augustine. But how did a man such as Augustine come to understand Scripture? It made no sense to him till he had the example of Ambrose explaining it. Ambrose read Origen. Think of the remarkable power of Jerome’s learning and Vulgate, through which we have all in so many ways been nourished. He admired Origen when he was finding his way and even when he turned on him, he plagiarized entire paragraphs, inserting them in his commentaries without attribution. That is praise indeed! Think of the Cappadocian fathers and what we have gained from them. Admirers of Origen all, these giants of orthodox Trinitarian theology. Origen, you see, comes down to us Justinian’s attempts to thwart that notwithstanding. Origen understood what is interesting because he understood what true objects of knowledge are. He has taught the church.

I have read a lot of Origen before, and he has left me cold, to tell you the truth, though I’ve wanted to understand him. I have persevered and at last have found a way into him. I recommend it: Origen, Spirit and Fire: A Thematic Anthology of His Writings, Translated by Robert J. Daly. It is bright with meaning.


2 thoughts on “Origen

  1. Thanks for this. I was discouraged early on from reading the Fathers by people who only knew the Fathers from caricatures drawn from other caricatures. But I need to spend time with them myself.

  2. One consideration that is overlooked for the sake of convenience is the quality of the translation. It can make a big difference. So don’t settle for what’s online or in whatever lies at hand unless you have to.

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